News & Media


Harvick grabs points lead with just enough fuel

September 20, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Pit road was a challenge all race for the No. 29 due to a disappointing qualifying run. (Autostock)

JOLIET, Ill. -- With five laps to go in Monday's Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, crew chief Gil Martin threw caution to the wind and told his driver, Kevin Harvick, that it was time to go for the lead.

In seemingly an instant, Harvick drove his No. 29 Chevrolet from fifth place to second and started putting pressure on leader Tony Stewart. He couldn't catch Stewart and eventually had to settle for a runner-up finish, but Harvick at least made Stewart's race-winning No. 14 team aware that he was there.

"We've had a good three weeks, haven't we? It was just one of those things where we got out of character, doing some things we wouldn't normally do. We were just going after wins and now it's about those second-place finishes and those 10th-place finishes ..."

--KEVIN HARVICK

"The No. 29 kept us honest right there at the very end," said Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb. "He saved [fuel] at the beginning of his runs so at the end he was able to come up through the field really quick. We definitely were keeping an eye on him."

Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin, was candid with his driver over the team radio. He told Harvick it was time to go, but that he wasn't sure if their car would make it to the finish before running out of fuel.

It did, but barely. Harvick ran out of gas on pit road shortly after crossing the start/finish line -- but with the second-place finish secure. That moved him into the points lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, seven points in front of Stewart and 10 or more points clear of the rest of the 12-driver Chase field with nine races left in the season.

"Kevin does a really good job on saving fuel," Martin said. "I'm not going to sit right here and say that I was 100 percent confident. I just knew that the group of guys that we were racing were right there. If we pitted, we finish 21st. If we run out of gas, we finish 21st. So you might as well gamble on the big end right there.

"I don't like coming into this Chase and gambling already. I had enough of that this summer and there is too much at stake right now. But I can't say enough about Kevin. He's just really good at saving fuel in the car; he does a great job."

Harvick was all smiles after the race. He said he thought that even if he couldn't catch Stewart, there was a chance the No. 14 would run out of gas in the final laps -- much as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others did earlier this season when Harvick was able to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"You just never know. It was kind of like the Charlotte deal all over again," Harvick said. "We had a good car all day. You just never know, really, how much gas you actually save. That's the hard part. But I felt like we had saved a good amount under caution and a good amount during the first 15 laps of that last run -- and in the middle of the run we were able to get a couple gaps to shut the engine off five or six times. It ended up being enough."

Martin said the gamble won was the kind necessary to take if Harvick is to win a championship.

"I think you have to take that chance," Martin said. "You've got to have a guy in the car who is aware of the situation and knows how many laps you need -- and he can't determine exactly how much he's saving, but he knows if he's saving a good bit. And that's what he did. It worked out for us.

"But we didn't finish second only because of that. We had a really good race car all day long. We started in a little bit of a hole. We had a terrible pit stall and fought that all day long. But all in all, it was a good day."

Harvick started 30th and battled issues with the pit crew of driver Kurt Busch's No. 22 team throughout the first half of the race. The No. 22 pit stall was right in front of the No. 29's -- and Harvick complained bitterly on the team radio at one point about tires that were being left in his path as he attempted to pull out from his stall after several early stops.

"They were trying to make sure they weren't going to get blocked in. And I'm not going to sit here and say they did anything wrong," Martin said. "They were trying to do their pit stop. The No. 22 guys worked purposely, trying to do it [correctly]. But when you take the right-front tire off, you set it out there and it rolls a little bit -- and it sucked for us because it was in the way.

"That's just part of being on pit road. We didn't do a very good job of picking our pit stall this week. ... We should have qualified better -- and then we would have had a better pit stall."

Both Martin and Harvick were satisfied with the performance of their over-the-wall pit crew, which was new for the race as the three Richard Childress Racing teams swapped crews around beforehand. Harvick's car is now being pitted by the crew that formerly serviced the No. 33 car of RCR teammate Clint Bowyer.

Harvick pitted seven times during Monday's race and ranked 11th in the field of 43 in average seconds per stop spent on pit road.

But the key ended up being Harvick's ability to save fuel at the beginning of long runs, particularly during the beginning of the final 49-lap, green-flag run to the checkered flag. Harvick said he knew he had to conserve as soon as he departed pit road following what turned out to be his final stop.

"We were five laps short at that time," Harvick said. "They've been pretty good on the fuel numbers throughout the years I've been with them. They have a fairly good idea when I tell them I think I've got a certain amount, they figure it into their calculations. So it all worked out. We ran out on pit road after coming to the checkered."

For Harvick, it was his third strong finish in a row after a summer stretch during which he and Martin agreed they "ran like crap." He finished seventh at Atlanta and won at Richmond before Monday's second-place run.

"We've had a good three weeks, haven't we?" said Harvick, smiling again. "It was just one of those things where we got out of character, doing some things we wouldn't normally do. We didn't race like we did [Monday]. We took a lot of chances. We were just going after wins and now it's about those second-place finishes and those 10th-place finishes -- and when you're having a bad day, figuring out how to make something out of it. Those are the days that count."

As for grabbing the points lead, Harvick added: "That's better than being behind, for sure. I think that's just a credit to the team and everything that we've worked for, going all the way back to the start of last year. It keeps building and we've just got to keep it up for nine more weeks."

Martin grinned when he was asked about his risky command to tell Harvick to push the pedal to the metal with five to go Monday.

"I wish we could do that every week," he said. "I wish we could push a magic button every week and go like that."